Inside one of the biggest churches in Fayette County lies the state’s smallest juggernaut. Comprised of nearly 175 students, Grace Christian Academy is home to some of the brightest young minds in the state. Scholars have walked the halls and done extraordinary things in around the world.
However, it is the Grace Christian Academy baseball team that is starting to bring attention on a bigger scale. Since becoming a full-time varsity program four years ago, the Grace Christian Eagles have established a winning culture with just 13 players.
The Eagles have won back-to-back Georgia Christian Athletic Association (GCAA) state titles and are four-time GCAA Region 1 champs. They also have made the state title game three out of the last four seasons and are riding an impressive 31-game winning streak.
This season, Grace Christian took home the state title after defeating Kings Way Christian School. The win allowed their senior class to go out with two championships and recognition as one of the best private Christian school programs in the state.
“It is a humbling experience when things come together like that,” head coach Steve Smeal said. “I give all the credit to the players coming together, and as a coach you can only hope that happens. These guys always played for each other and did it as a group.”
The Eagles journey started in an unfamiliar way. They opened the season facing Fayette County High School on the road. It was their first time playing a public school with more resources and a larger player pool.
For a team like Grace Christian, a scrappy team comprised partly of home-schoolers and eighth graders, it was a chance to enjoy the experience. The Eagles didn’t have any expectations on the game besides to just compete and have fun.
After seven innings, the team’s perception changed. They started to believe that this season could be special as they defeated Fayette 4-1 on the road. The win gave them momentum, and it ultimately propelled them to an undefeated season.
“It gave us tremendous confidence as a lot of the players that play on Fayette County are in our organization at Foundation Sports,” said Smeal, also the owner of Foundation Sports. “We went in there as an underdog and didn’t expect a lot out of it. We just wanted to see what we could do to start the season.”
The starting pitcher of that game was junior Ira Clifton. He previously starred at Sandy Creek High School before transferring to Grace Christian for its academic focus. Clifton shut down Fayette as he allowed one run over seven innings of work. He called that game one of the biggest highlights of the season.
“The fact we could go up against a public school with a lot more resources and still win, I knew it was going to be special,” Clifton said.
The victory also gave some players their first taste of success. After the victory, the Eagles started to dominate their schedule. They outscored opponents 178-30 and had some signature wins.
The Eagles threw a no-hitter against Kings Way Christian School 15-0 on March 2 and scored 26 runs against Old Suwannee Christian on March 15. They followed that up with six straight games of 10-plus runs against opponents in April.
The key to their success is formulated through the “4 E’s” philosophy. Smeal said the team focused each day on showcasing excellence, effort, energy, and encouragement. These principles are used on and off the field to create unity between the team, family, community, and the school.
“We live and breathe those things, and if we get down on things we come back to those principles,” Smeal said. “They have been our four pillars over the years.”
Clifton agreed. He added that it is also the commitment of every player that pushed them to a successful year.
“Everyone was 100 percent committed to the team,” Clifton said. “There was no outlier or guy that was selfish and wanted to play for himself. It was a huge team effort that had a commitment to the goal of winning a state championship.”
Several players made major contributions to the team. David Hanners stood out as one of the senior leaders, along with Jacob Chrzanowski, Nathan Ingram, and Javon Francis. Other players that had strong campaigns were junior Kyran Coleman, sophomore Noah Sweatman, and freshman Briston Holdip.
The Eagles recorded a .400 batting average as a team. They also hit 5 home runs and stole 67 bases. Junior Seth Blackerby led the team with a .519 batting average and 27 RBIs. Clifton led the team in homers and doubles and posted a 0.72 ERA.
“We worked at it since January, and we put in all of this work and time in the cages to practice,” Clifton said. “We showed up to the field and to finally know it paid off was the best part.”
As the calendar turns to next season, Grace Christian will always remember their magical year. They will have to replace a couple seniors, but Smeal has confidence that the younger players will step up.
“I look at the younger guys as the future of our program,” Smeal said. “We have done a really good job of passing the torch.”
As one of the upcoming seniors, Clifton said he plans to step up and help fill the leadership void. He already has worked hard in the off-season and has been named a National Association of Christian Athletes Baseball All-American.
“We lost some key seniors that are leadership guys,” Clifton said. “The leadership has got to be replaced to keep the tradition and the winning mentality. I am going to do my best to keep that in there.”